What are the Nephilim?

This entry is part 44 of 258 in the series Inquiring Minds
Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

I’ve always been fascinated with trying to understand who the Nephilim are when I read Genesis 6:1-4. Who are they and what do they do?

Nephilim are first mentioned in Genesis 6:4 in the Bible. This is one of the first “head scratchers”. Nephilim looks weird in English because it is a Hebrew word that some Bible versions leave untranslated. It means “giants, mighty men, or heroes.”

Context and Background

The events of Genesis 6:1-4 are the last straw in human wickedness. God punishes the whole earth by creating the flood to start over. Humans became so evil that God sprang into action. Adam and Eve disobeyed God (Genesis 3) and he kicked them out of the garden of Eden.

Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4) and the generations continue after Seth replaces Abel. So you have two lines, one dedicated to wickedness (Cain) and the other devoted to righteousness (Abel).

In Genesis 6, humans finally crossed the line by committing sin with the “Sons of God” that cannot be undone. Is so grievous to God he says things like, “My Spirit will not always strive with men,” (Genesis 6:3) and, “The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6). The intentions of the heart of man were always evil all the time (Genesis 6:5).

God tried to curb the wickedness of man by reducing his years to 120. Perhaps reducing the lifespan of humans would allow righteousness an opportunity to reassert itself. But even that didn’t work.

Human actions and sin caused God’s grief. Some people read God’s words and thoughts about humanity and feel like he can’t love them. But this was the final simple action that God could no longer abide. This triggering event brought God’s judgment on the earth.

The Sons of God, Daughters of Men, and the Nephilim

Genesis 6:1-4

“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (ESV)

There are a few groups of people we must identify before we can grasp the identity and purpose of the Nephilim in this passage. First, you have the sons of God. Who are they? They appear in the Old Testament to help us discover their identity.

Scholars suggest three possibilities for this group’s identity:

  1. “Sons of God” are the godly line of Seth and “daughters of men” are the ungodly line of Cain.
  2. “Sons of God” are ancient rulers and “daughters of men” are the women in their harems.
  3. “Sons of God” are fallen angels and “daughters of men” are human women.

The first suggestion fits the immediate context of Genesis 4-5 but doesn’t completely agree with daughters and sons in earlier passages. The second suggestion is the least likely because it doesn’t seem grievous enough for God to respond the way he did. This leaves the third option as the most possible.

The sons of God appear in other verses (Deuteronomy 32:8; Job 1:6; 2:1 38:7; Psalm 29:1; 89:6). Many scholars believe them to be fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6) because they are present at creation (Job 38:7). Fallen angels may come from a literal translation of Nephilim as “those who fall upon.”

Next you have the daughters of men. These are the women born to human beings living on the earth. The men willingly give their daughters to these “Sons of God.” No one is innocent in this transaction.

Angels serve God, which is why their actions with the daughters of men are so grievous. They have sexual relations with the daughters of men. This is a mixing of celestial beings with human beings.

Marriage is the great sin, entered into by both parties, and angels cannot become one flesh with humans (Genesis 2:24). Along the same lines, the passage may hint about polygamist marriage as well when they take whomever they wish. Aside from this, Jesus tells us that angels do not marry (Matthew 22:30).

When God seeks a mate for Adam, he doesn’t consider angels. If God doesn’t turn to angels he created to fill this void, angels mating with humans in Genesis 6 would be grievous. Instead, he creates woman as his perfect choice for Adam’s companion.

This heinous, sinful act grieves God’s heart and violates his ordained order. He reduces humanity’s years to 120. Before this in the genealogies, men lived much longer. God gradually reduces their years, evidenced by people living longer than this even after his degree.

So this is the sin that causes God to bring the flood and re-create the earth with the righteous family of Noah as his remedy for the over-the-top wickedness of humans on the earth. Now we get to the question of who they Nephilim are and how they fit into this story.

In Genesis 6:4, the Nephilim are mentioned for the first time in Scripture. There are three possible suggestions on the identity of the Nephilim:

  1. They are the “sons of God.” This is probably not the case considering that they are mentioned a few verses later as a separate group.
  2. They are the children born to the sons of God and the daughters of men. There is no verb linking these groups through birth in the text.
  3. They are a separate group from the sons of God and daughters of men, and their children. The Bible states that they lived on the earth at the same time.

I believe the third view is the best option. Although the text doesn’t connect the Nephilim to the sons of God and daughters of men through childbirth, some scholars connect them to make sense of the writer mentioning them. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why they are there.

The writer shares that the Nephilim are on the earth at the same time as the sons of God and daughters of men. He also calls them mighty men, or warriors, ancients of renown. Anything else is speculation. They may have been warriors everyone from that time was aware of.

The Nephilim appear later in Scripture after the flood (Numbers 13:32-33). Moses sent spies into Canaan to scout out the land. Ten of these twelve spies returned with a bad report that the inhabitants are huge humans and mention the Nephilim.

The spies whisper this bad report about the Nephilim to discourage the Israelites from taking the land in battle. But they may mention the Nephilim from Genesis 6 because the natives are taller than the Israelites.

The Nephilim could literally be giants, large people roaming the earth like Goliath or mighty men and great warriors. Nephilim is not used again for warriors. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses a word meaning, “giants or mighty men.”

Angels and Physical Form

Do angels take physical form today or do what they did in Genesis 6?

Fallen angels, demons, or “Sons of God” haven’t committed this sin against marriage in history again. However, angels take physical form throughout the Bible. The Angel of the Lord appears to the Israelites.

In the New Testament, the angel Gabriel appears to the virgin Mary and declares God’s word about conceiving Jesus. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, also has an angel appear to him.

In the Gospels, demons influence, possess, and oppress human beings. But they do this as spirits and not by appearing physically to them. They inhabit the people they torment. It is my understanding from this evidence that angels never repeat the active Genesis 6 again in history. While they can take physical form they only do it to appear before human beings. They do not interact with humans other than to speak with them.

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